“The Goal Was to Scare People, but It Could Boomerang.”

Pamela Moses, a Memphis activist sentenced to six years in prison for registering to vote, talks about the prosecution and suppression of Black voters in Tennessee.

Daniel Nichanian   |    March 14, 2022

Pamela Moses speaks in front of the Shelby County Justice Center (Photo by Noah Stewart).

A Tennessee state agency told Pamela Moses that she was eligible to vote, in writing no less. But the Shelby County District Attorney then prosecuted Moses for following that guidance and registering to vote, and in January a Memphis judge sentenced her to six years in prison. 

Two weeks ago, Moses was granted a new trial after The Guardian revealed errors by state officials in her case, though the charges still hang over her head. Moses was released on bond on Feb. 25.

Moses spoke with Bolts about her ordeal and what led to it—Tennessee’s harsh disenfranchisement rules, a punitive and discriminatory local court system, and the suppression of Black voters. Moses, a Black Lives Matter activist in Memphis who was barred from voting after a 2015 guilty plea, has denounced these practices long before her recent prosecution.

More than one in five Black adults are barred from voting in Tennessee due to criminal convictions, compared to seven percent of the rest of the state’s population, a number that reflects vast racial disparities in who is prosecuted and how severely. Last week a local group of advocates demanded a racial equity audit of Shelby County DA Amy Weirich’s office, pointing to past scrutiny into its practices; Weirich responded by calling their demand “divisive and inflammatory.” In addition, people seeking to regain voting rights are faced with Tennessee’s notoriously confusing and burdensome process of even determining eligibility, let alone actually restoring their rights.

Moses says this legal labyrinth keeps people from even trying to reclaim their right to vote. While she believes the attempt to punish her for getting it wrong—or rather, for following the state’s faulty guidance—is meant to intimidate others from exercising their rights, she also says she hopes that people will instead be inspired to press for change. 

How has this ordeal impacted your life?

My life is just not the same. You can’t just come back out of jail and pick up where you left off, especially with the loss of my dog. It’s just really hard. I don’t sleep much, I’m up all night, and when I do sleep, I don’t sleep well. 

Just being in jail and separated from your family is a tragic thing. But to have to be in jail and see all the other injustices, it’s a humbling experience. I feel like I shouldn’t have been there, but there’s nothing I can do about what has happened. I just have to move forward. 

Why was it important for you to register to vote and have your rights restored? 

At the time I was seeking public office, and you had to be properly registered in order to run. I was trying to follow the law and the instructions that I was given by the Shelby County Election Commission. And it was important because we live in a state where the poverty rate is very high, as well as the illiteracy rate. The simple things that we take for granted, such as schools, and parks, and things that I always had access to—it was disturbing seeing how you can’t even go swimming at a public pool anymore because they close all those things down. It was important for me to give the people in my community a voice so they can have those types of opportunities, because I felt like it would make the city safer. I was really doing this for Memphis, not just myself.

Tennessee’s rights restoration rules are notoriously confusing and burdensome. What was it like navigating them and trying to figure out if you were eligible? 

What made my situation so hard was that it wasn’t clear when my sentence was over. It wasn’t clear when I came off probation, what kind of probation, what year, what month, what day, what my jail credit was. Nothing was clear. And so, as a person that didn’t understand, I went to the custodian of records with the department of corrections, seeking guidance, and they said I was off of it. I presented them with a form that I also took to the court that said that I still owe court costs, which for some reason has something to do with your right to vote, but they signed the papers anyway. And then I took it to the department of corrections. They signed it. They verified it twice. That’s what made it so complicated: All these different layers of people and process that you have to go to just to get one thing done. 

A public agency gave you a certificate that said you were eligible. What was your reaction when prosecutors still charged you for registering?

When I was first charged, I was confused. I just knew that they had to have the wrong person. I had no idea because the charge was illegal voter registration, I didn’t even know what they were alleging. 

Do you think other people who want to vote give up rather than try to navigate this complicated system you describe?

Oh, I don’t just think, I know. Before I went through this, I was registering people to vote, and I would run into people who were convicted felons. And I’m not talking about newly convicted felons, they had charges from the 80s. They wanted to vote, but they were like, “I’m a felon, I can’t vote.” Everyone saying, “I’m a felon, I can’t vote,” “I’m a felon, I can’t vote.” I said, “You just need to get your rights restored.” And everybody said, “How do you do that? Oh that’s too much trouble man, I don’t feel like that.” It’s discouraging.

Do you worry that the way you’ve been treated will dissuade others in the future, that it will have an intimidation effect?

I think that the goal was to scare people, but it could boomerang. It could scare people, but I hope that it doesn’t. I don’t know what people are going to do. What I do know is that there are a lot of people who are inspired by the fact that this happened to me, like, “I’m gonna start voting more. Because that happened to you, I got to vote.” And we got another group that is like, “Man, this makes no sense at all. They need to change the law.” 

Do you believe that that race played a factor in how harshly the prosecutor’s office or the court treated you?

Oh, absolutely, at least from the prosecutor’s standpoint. I think that absolutely my race, my socioeconomic status, and my political beliefs, is what motivated them. I don’t think, if I would have been of another race, that this even would have amounted to a prosecution.

What political beliefs?

That I believe Black lives matter, and Black voters matter. I’m so vocal in saying that everywhere I go. I wear earrings that say it, I made a song about the DA and the racism that we experience as Black people in Memphis, so she knew that I wasn’t crazy about her. It didn’t have anything to do with her being a Republican; it has everything to do with the way she selectively prosecutes people. 

When I was in jail, this last time, there were women who’d been sitting in jail, waiting to go to trial, for years.  They were all Black. They were all poor. And they just been sitting there waiting to go to trial. That’s what I see: I see injustice in the jail, on the streets. [Editor’s note: Pretrial practices in Shelby county have been under scrutiny for keeping people locked because they are too poor to afford release; a recent report by a court-appointed inspector found people being held “for months or years.”]

The DA’s office has defended the six-year prison sentence you received at the trial saying they proposed a lesser sentence as part of a plea deal. Why didn’t you take the plea deal, and were you worried about being punished for going to trial?

Because that’s how I got into this situation, by taking a plea for something that I didn’t do. I tried to get out of jail, so I pled guilty like most people that can’t afford to make half a million dollar bond. I pled guilty to something that I didn’t do, and I told myself that I would never do that again. I would just have to sit and wait until somebody said I wasn’t guilty. So that was the main reason why. 

The second reason, why should a person waive their right, their constitutional right to trial by jury? If the Constitution says we have that right, why do Black people have to give up their right?

What would you tell people in Shelby County who have lost the right to vote, or who may just be reading the coverage of your case? What would you want them to take from your ordeal?

I want them to know that they have a constitutional right to vote, and everybody should try to exercise it. If you’re a felon, you should try to get your rights back. If you owe court costs, see if you can get a judge to waive it. If you can’t get your right back, support the people who are going to Nashville pushing for laws to be changed, show up with them: There’s strength in numbers. If five people go asking them to change something, they’re not going to do it. But if 5,000 people show up and say we want this change, it’s gonna happen. It’s called democracy.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.